Arts Desk

Cecile McLorin Salvant: 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition Winner

Cecile McLorin Salvant(Update 10/5 7:32 AM: It bears mentioning that I missed the first hour of Sunday's semifinal, which included Salvant's performance for that day. My critique of her singing would surely have been affected if I'd seen her perform twice, as I did Wade and Amie. Caveat emptor.)

Two things to remember:

(1) Singing is perhaps the most subjectively appreciated aspect of music (perhaps the most subjectively appreciated art).
(2) Singers hear things in other singers that you and I don't.

That's certainly the reasoning this writer fell back on, having guessed (and had that guess reaffirmed by an informal survey of acquaintances in the audience) that Brooklyn's Charenee Wade would win the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition, with her firm control and the subtle maturity of her delivery. It was a surprise indeed when the winner was Cecile McLorin Salvant, 21, a French-Haitian-American from Miami — who will now reap the benefits of a $20,000 scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Music Group.

Plus the small additional prize of singing "Blue Skies" onstage at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater alongside judges Dianne Reeves, Patti Austin, Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, plus special guests Jane Monheit, Ledisi, and Gladys Knight.

Wade received second place honors (a scholarship worth $10,000), with French vocalist Cyrille Amie ($5,000) taking third.

The competition began Sunday with the semifinals, held at the National Museum of the American Indian's Rasmuson Theater. Twelve international vocalists were required to play a program of three tunes each (one by Thelonious Monk, the founder of our feast), with the backing of pianist Reggie Thomas*, bassist Rodney Whittaker, and drummer Carl Allen. There were no local semifinalists this year (unlike 2009, when both eventual winner Ben Williams and semifinalist Corcoran Holt were DC natives). Tonight's finals called for each of the three finalists to sing an additional two songs.

Notably, announced judge and gala performer Aretha Franklin was absent after her son sustained critical injuries in an assault last month. The judges' panel made do without her, while the audience had to settle for an appearance by Gladys Knight (darn).

To these ears, McLorin was extremely gifted and technically skilled, and easily the best scatter of the bunch. On the other hand, she had an edge in her voice of melodrama and a little bit of an overreliance on Billie Holiday's vocal mannerisms. I thought she'd make an excellent second-place winner. Of course, these ears aren't qualified to stand in for Elling's, Reeves', Bridgewater's, Jarreau's, and/or Austin's.

But if Aretha was here, she'd have agreed with me.

*The five of you who followed my live tweets of the semifinals on Sunday may have noticed that I credited piano to Geoffrey Keezer, last year's pianist. My bad.

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  • Jimmy Stewart

    I was not as impressed with Charlene on Sunday and it was obvious the crowd favorite was Cecile with half the crowd giving her a standing ovation. I could agree that clinically, Charlene may have the technical skills, but you still need to move the audience and Cecile was able to do that better than any other competitor, which in my opinion is part of the reason she won the competition. Either way, it was a wonderful event with great jazz.

  • Michael J. West

    I should note that I missed Cecile's performance on Sunday. That surely would have affected how I saw her Monday night.

  • James

    The winner did not scat one note during the finals... And the judges had her win because she told a story and made us in the crowd really understand the lyrics to If This Isn't Love. They were all great, and congrats to all!

  • comprendo

    Michael West is obviously an uninformed ass. His attempted insults directed at The Empress of Soul reveal his ignorance. It is always an absolute privilege and honor to be in the presence of Gladys Knight, and no one is ever "settling" when it comes to The Empress of Soul.

  • Alanna

    Thanks for the recap, Michael. Surely wished I was there to partake in this aural experience. Love Jane (as you know) and I certainly do not believe you are an "uninformed ass" as we all are sure you were not seriously disheartened that Gladys Knight was guesting the panel rather than Ms. Franklin.

    I must check out Charlene some time in Bk!

  • Alanna

    excuse me, Charenee.

  • Barbara

    Having only seen the three finalists on Monday night, it was clear to me that Cecile won hands down. The range, clarity, and phrasing of her voice sounded like a cross between Ella and Billie, but with her own innuendos. She took a chance in singing more difficult songs with more complex intervals--which could have crashed and burned. However, she was vocal perfection in the delivery of her choices. I expect to hear great music as she matures in her art.

  • Dave

    So how does the 'best scatter of the bunch' according to you fail to scat one note during the finals? Interesting assessment, right up there along with 'settling' for Gladys Knight, who easily had the best performance of the night...
    And don't say singers hear things in other singers that you and I don't, assuming your audience has as terrible an ear for musical ability as you do...

  • elks

    Um... i think there was quite a bit of sarcasm in the "(darn.)"

  • elks

    and she scatted during the finale after the competition. so dont be blahblahblahing. sigh... jazz people.

  • Nouchka

    You admit in the first paragraph that you missed her Sunday performance and that your jugment would have been affected, then you mention the results of your "informal survey" of your friends in the audience, then you go on stating that if Aretha was there she'd agree with you (a bit presomptuous on your part), then you apologize for wrongly crediting a pianist on your last tweet! These ears of yours are definitely no match for those of the prestigious panel of judges. Sunday and Monday performances by Cécile were fantastic (I was there)and the professional music critics of the Washington Post, New York Times and NPR agree. Charenee and Cyrille were excellent contenders no doubt there, but afterall Cecile won and rightfully so!